The first is to create something that meets the conventional definition and expectation of sacred space. Church architects often seem to draw from the same toolkit in creating this traditionalist church environment, typically employing the following techniques, designed to artificially induce a physiological / emotional sense of sacred:
The second option/paradigm, which has been popularized in the Church Growth movement, but has American roots in the austere Quaker meetinghouses, is the minimal functionalist model. The logic behind this approach, particularly popular amongst Evangelical churches, may either be a) financial stewardship in reaction against perceived opulence of traditional sacred spaces, or b) a desire to present a seeker sensitive secular appearance in order to disallow religious iconography to get in the way of unadorned gospel.
Throughout history, God has shown Himself to be passionate about community, from the eternal relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to the good environment He created in the Garden, to the intentional wilderness camp layout, and on to the City of Heaven. A key aspect of God’s architecture of community has been environments that simultaneously facilitate horizontal connection between people, as well as vertical connection with Him. In America, we have neutered the word community by divorcing it from the concept of place (eg. the “Gay community,” an internet “virtual community”). However, when we get back to the original definition of church as “Ekklesia”, we rediscover that the intersection of place and people matter to God.
New typologies and paradigms which move beyond the impoverished theology of the traditionalist or functionalist model are being created as churches around the world are recognizing that in order to most effectively reach their community, new approaches may be necessary which have more in common with missionary strategies:
In charting a new course, or a third option, we have come to the conviction that church walls have actually become the biggest obstacles separating Church from the community, the lost and the found, and the truth from those who need it the most. Clues to a new direction are found in God’s provision of the Court of the Gentiles, Paul’s ability to point people to Christ through the cultural connection at Mars Hill, and Christ’s ability to meet a Samaritan woman as she was trying to get a bucket of water at Jacob’s Well. She would never have made it to Jerusalem, to the Temple and the Most Holy Place. God came to her at the community watering hole. In the same way, today we can create postmodern wells which serve living water in environments that can function as a much needed spiritual, social, and cultural heart of the community.
Perhaps more architects and pastors are called to be well-diggers than temple-builders.
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Mel McGowan is President and founder of Visioneering Studios–Solomon Awards “Best Church Architect” and “Best Contractor.” Visioneering Studios is a national architecture, urban planning, and construction firm with offices in OC, Phoenix, Denver, Austin, Chicago, and Charlotte. Mel combined his background in film and urban design during a decade long stint at the Walt Disney Company. He speaks extensively on sustainable Christ-centered community and is the author of Design Intervention: Revolutionizing Sacred Space (www.designintervention.org).